by Byron Woods
Usually, determining a play’s subject is something of a preliminary task: one that leads us, more or less directly, into deeper critical waters. But within the past week, two productions—MoLoRa (Ash) at Duke and I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda at UNC—have stopped me at what is usually a fairly neutral border in my critical walk. In both cases, it wasn’t enough to ask what each work was about. I felt I had to ask what each should be about, as well—based upon the focus each work has ultimately chosen.
By coincidence, both plays deal, at least tangentially, with different atrocities that occurred upon the African continent. MoLoRa, performed by the touring South African company Farber Foundry, seeks to reframe the tragic Greek trilogy The Oresteia against the achievements of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998. A Remarkable Document concerns the Tutsi genocide of 1994 in Rwanda.
But both of these statements actually set the true trajectories of these dramas off by a few, crucial degrees.
It’s more accurate to say that A Remarkable Document claims to detail a Tutsi survivor’s life in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide: her exile, in a cheerless gray room of a London refugee center; her memories of family and home, both comforting and horrific; and her attempts to tell the story of her experiences, in what (at least, we are told) is first a clinical, distant academic work, and then a more direct, autobiographical manuscript.
At the same time, though, Document also concerns her would-be mentor, Simon, a middle-aged British poet who seeks some distraction from his failing attempts at novel-writing by taking on a temporary job as a writing instructor working with refugees. It concerns his somewhat problematic marriage, his literary insecurities—and his increasing attraction toward his pupil, the somewhat less than subtly named Juliette.
Doubtlessly, a work on genocide should disturb us. But I’m still wondering if that emotion here springs more from such subject matter, or what almost seems to be the work’s own reticence in engaging that very topic.
Before we go further, let’s recognize one dilemma that a work like A Remarkable Document faces.
By definition, the survivor’s song does not end in the killing fields. To insist that it does, or to imply it’s more appropriate if it did, privileges the tales of the dead above the struggles of the living, and puts us in the position of ratifying a certain kind of survivors’ guilt, as a culture. When we do, we take part (inadvertently, let’s hope) in the eclipse of the living: valuing their past, while denying them a present or a future. (The question arises: How does that differ, exactly, from murder?)
To its distinct credit, A Remarkable Document gets at this dilemma when Juliette rebels at one point against continuing work on her book: “I need to start my life, I need to live now,” she shouts at Simon, “but every time I write, I’m there, I’m there! I want to be here!” Beyond a point, playwright Sonja Linden correctly notes, uninterrupted focus on the past can easily serve to merely reinforce and extend its miseries.
And yet. A Remarkable Document spends more time in Simon’s meager office—more time at a hipster London poetry reading, for that matter—than it spends giving the stage to a firsthand account of the horrors of the Hutu bloodbath of April, 1996. We spend about as much time listening to Simon recounting a fight with his wife as we do with Juliette as she memorializes the dead in a tender, candlelit ritual.
Yes, Juliette remembers her family in moving prose elsewhere in the play, and a subsequent reunion with a family member is framed in terms both warm and poignant. But when it comes to facing the true, the final darkness, it’s hard not to feel that A Remarkable Document shies away, preoccupying itself and us with the daily logistical snags and interpersonal frictions in Juliette and Simon’s relationship beyond a useful degree.
It well may be that human kind, as T.S. Eliot wrote, cannot bear very much reality. But I had the nagging sense throughout A Remarkable Document that it can bear a bit more than this.
Actor Joy Jones’ work with director Raelle Myrick-Hodges ably conveys the depth, the wit, the humorously blunt opinions, and the humble stubbornness of this multifaceted character. The overt musicality in her voice remains an unaffected refreshment. Somewhat less successful: Garth Petal, who seemed to mug at times as Simon—and who apparently was directed to creepily semi-stalk Juliette out of his office on a couple of occasions early on. Our skin crawled.
To be fair, A Remarkable Document would have to be exactly that—remarkable—in order to keep equal faith with the living and the dead in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. Ultimately, Linden’s script chooses life—but to a degree that makes us wonder if a larger point has gone missing.